Tax season is here again, and it's time to settle up with Uncle Sam. You might be one of the millions of Americans who wait till the last minute to file. Hope is not lost. The Internet can help, or at least save you from the alphabet soup of schedules and the number jumble of forms that is the American tax system.
An online tax solution can help you prepare and submit your federal and state taxes, saving you time and headaches (and possibly some of your hard-earned money) in the process. And there are many services to choose from. None will be the perfect substitute for a personal accountant or tax preparer. But they're less expensive and don't require you to stand in line with a stack of receipts. For many of us, it's just the answer.
Here are some of the best online tax preparation options:
H&R Block has been in the tax game for over half a century, and the company has plenty of convenient locations. That feature alone sets it apart from other services. But going online means skipping the line and headache. Free online filing — well suited for first-time filers and those with simple tax returns — is offered through the free edition of H&R Block At Home. Free audit support is also included. And the Block Live service lets you chat with a tax professional online, on the telephone or through video conference for a fee. Those looking to build upon last year's information and return will to upgrade to the Basic ($19.95) or Deluxe ($29.95) edition.
Jackson Hewitt has actual locations as well, many of them in your local Walmart. While their online services aren't quite as robust as H&R Block's, neither are their prices. The free service allows you to file a basic federal return at no cost. But homeowners and the self-employed will have to upgrade to a higher level. Jackson Hewitt lets you import information from other online tax services and from last year's return. They also offer Refund Anticipation Loans, to get you your refund faster; most other companies have discontinued this.
TaxACT also has a free Federal Edition that includes all the necessary e-readable forms. Users can be chaperoned through the steps online — the system is quick and intuitive — or download software to their Windows-based PC and work offline. Free e-mail and audio support is also included. Returning TaxAct users can get the Deluxe Federal Edition (and the ability to import last year's data) for just $9.95. In fact all of its options are easy on the wallet. The Deluxe Federal Edition also comes with phone support and extra calculators and reports. And before you ask — TaxAct offers state forms too.
Simple and straightforward navigation makes TaxSlayer ideal for filing your federal and state taxes. The step-by-step process draws out the responses that the system needs to build your online tax forms. But you'll have to input your W-2 information manually, as there isn't an option to import them. The Free Edition lets you file a simple federal return at no cost, but a state return will cost $18. Those wanting support beyond email — as in a "real" person on the phone, a deduction guide and the ability to import information from a prior year — will have to spend $9.95 for the Classic Edition.
TurboTax is the most used tax service, and also the most expensive. The TurboTax Free Edition lets the user click step by step through all the information needed for a simple tax return. Whereas some view the TurboTax system as thorough, others view it as overly so. But the slick interface helps to keep things moving. Free audit information is offered, as is phone and live chat support, should you need them. "Smart Check" will double-check a return to eliminate errors (TurboTax will even pay the penalties and interest should a calculation error be theirs). More advanced editions of TurboTax, for filers with more complicated tax situations, start at $49.95.
Visit the Lighter Side of Taxes at CBS Local.
Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology, gadget and lifestyle writer based on the West Coast.